September 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Andrew Raine, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 9:41 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022
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9:35 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Our coverage for the day has ended. Follow the latest Ukraine news here or read through the updates below.

9:16 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

"It’s kind of indescribable." Fiancée of freed American stunned by call that he was coming home

Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, right.
Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, right. (Courtesy Bunny Drueke and Joy Black)

Joy Black was sitting with a friend during her break at work Wednesday when she received an unexpected call from Saudi Arabia — to tell her that fiancé Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh was coming home.

“It’s kind of indescribable. I was still kind of in shock so I was like ‘How do I know it’s really you?’ and he said this inside joke we have between each other and instantly I was like, ‘It’s him! It’s really him,'” Black told CNN’s Erin Burnett. 

It was her first conversation with Huynh since June 8. "It was just so amazing to finally get to hear his voice again and speak to him," she said.

Huynh and another American, Alexander John-Robert Drueke, were captured in June while fighting in Ukraine. They were released, along with eight others, in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was spearheaded by the government of Saudi Arabia.

"It’s just so good to know that they are OK and that they’re going to come home,” Black said.

Huynh could be back as early as Friday, she said, adding he has a special request for his homecoming in Alabama: spaghetti with meat, which he'd been craving while in Ukraine.

8:45 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Blinken welcomes prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday welcomed the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia that led to the release of 10 people, including two Americans.

“The United States is appreciative of Ukraine including all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations, and we look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families,” Blinken said in a statement.  

He also thanked Saudi Arabia for spearheading the initiative. “I conveyed my gratitude to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in a call this morning,” Blinken said.

Family members of Americans Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh — captured in June while fighting for Ukraine north of Kharkiv — confirmed to CNN earlier Wednesday that they had been freed.

Five Britons were also released, the British government said. Additionally, three others — Moroccan, Swedish and Croatian nationals — were freed in the swap, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

 In his statement, Blinken reiterated that US citizens should not travel to Ukraine.

“Americans who travel to Ukraine to participate in the fighting there face significant risks and the United States cannot guarantee their safety,” he said. “We encourage U.S. citizens to devote their energies towards the many other opportunities that exist to help the country of Ukraine and its people.”

8:09 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

North Korea says it never sold weaponry to Russia, according to state media

From CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Larry Register

North Korea says it never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. 

Earlier this month, a US official told CNN that Russia is purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine. The New York Times first reported the purchases.

North Korea condemned the US “for thoughtlessly circulating the rumor against the DPRK to pursue its base political and military aim” and said the US should keep its mouth shut, according to KCNA.

DPRK stands for the Democratic Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea.

The state media cited a press statement from the Vice Director General of the General Bureau of Equipment of the Ministry of National Defense but did not provide a name for the Vice Director General.

North Korea said the "development, production, possession of military equipment, but also their export and import are the lawful right peculiar to a sovereign state, and nobody is entitled to criticize it.”

However, the statement said:

“We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them.”

It added that the rumors about exports to Russia were aimed at tarnishing North Korea's image.

7:58 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Zelensky claims Russia is afraid of peace talks in Ukraine

From CNN's Jonny Hallam 

Russia is afraid of real peace negotiations in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday during his address to the UN General Assembly.

Instead, Russia lies to everyone, the president said. It "talks about the talks but announces a military mobilization."

Zelensky, in his pre-recorded remarks, added:

"What is true then? The military mobilization in Russia is true. Sham referendums are also true. Russia wants war. It's true." 

Zelensky ended his address by saying, "We are ready for peace. But true, honest and fair peace. That’s why the world is on our side."

7:18 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

US doesn't see any evidence of a heightened nuclear threat after Putin's speech, official says

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt at "playing the nuclear card" in his national address earlier Wednesday along with his order for a partial mobilization was an act of weakness, a senior US administration official said Wednesday.

“Declaring a mobilization, and then refining the declaration of mobilization to try to have it both ways — on the one hand, indicating you're calling a bunch of people up, and on the other hand, saying we're not calling too many people up — that also indicates a very pressurized environment in Russia,” the official said. “And the fact that he has to resort to something he clearly didn't want to do is a reflection of the fact that his campaign in Ukraine is failing.”

The official said the US does not see any signs that indicate a heightened nuclear threat from Russia, despite Putin’s rhetoric.

“We have heard him before, wave around the nuclear card, and we heard it again in his speech today, and in fact, the language and formula he used today is quite similar to how he's spoken before,” the official said.

Still, President Biden and other US officials remain on alert for potential escalation as the conflict in Ukraine grinds ahead.

“We are watching carefully to see for any signs of potential escalation, and we are sending very clear and strong messages to Russia about the consequences of escalation,” the official said.

9:41 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Zelensky spoke to the UN. Here are the main points he made

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the UN General Assembly on Wednesday in a pre-recorded speech that focused on the Russian war launched on Feb. 24. 

He outlined five preconditions for peace during his speech:

  • Punishment for aggression 
  • Protection of life 
  • Restoration of security and territorial integrity 
  • Security guarantees 
  • Determination to defend oneself 

Here are the key lines from Zelensky's remarks:

  • The Ukrainian president called for Russia to be punished: "A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people," Zelensky said. "Ukraine demands punishment for trying to steal our territory" and for the murder of thousands of people.
  • Zelensky said the entire world wants peace, with the exception of Russia: "Ukraine wants peace, Europe wants peace, the world wants peace, and we have seen who is the only one who wants war," he said, alluding to President Vladimir Putin, without mentioning his name. "There is only one entity among all UN member states, who would say now, if he could interrupt my speech that he's happy with this war, with his war." Zelensky said.
  • Zelensky said he believed Ukrainian territories will be liberated over time: "We can return the Ukraine flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the force of arms, but we need time."
  • Russia should lose UN veto power: Zelensky called for Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, to lose its veto power. "So long as the aggressor is party to decision making in the international organization you must be insulated from them, at least until aggression stops."
  • Special tribunal to punish Russia: Zelensky called for the creation of a special tribunal to punish Russia. "This will become a signal to all would-be aggressors, that they must value peace or be brought to responsibility by the world."

Zelensky received a standing ovation from most delegates after his speech. The Russian delegation remained seated and did not applaud.

6:39 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

IAEA chief met with Russian and Ukrainian ministers to discuss safety zone around Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

From CNN's Jennifer Deaton

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said he met the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday in an effort to establish a safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

“I’m working very very hard," he said. “The wheels are in motion.”

Grossi had meetings with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The issue needs to be resolved quickly, Grossi said.

“Getting an agreement today would have been nice, but you can imagine that these are very complex issues that require perhaps a bit more than one meeting. But we are already working on the very concrete aspects that would be required to having the zone be established," he said.

Grossi added that beyond the differences, “there is the conviction that the establishment of this zone is indispensable. Let’s be clear. This nuclear power plant is being shelled now. And so we need to protect it in some way.”

6:29 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Shelling damages cables providing power to Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor, UN watchdog says

From CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq

A number of cables providing electricity to one of Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant's reactors were damaged by shelling on Wednesday, the UN nuclear watchdog said in a statement.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the shelling had temporarily forced reactor number six "to rely on emergency diesel generators for the power it needs for essential safety functions."

The five other reactors were not affected and continued " to receive power directly from the plant's off-site power line that was restored last week," IAEA added.

The plant in southern Ukraine, with six reactors, is the largest nuclear power station in Europe. It was mostly built in the Soviet era and became Ukrainian property after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Work is underway to repair the damaged cables," the IAEA's statement said.

"This once again demonstrates the urgent necessity to establish such a zone around the ZNPP. Until yesterday, there seemed to be less shelling at or near the plant, but this latest episode shows that the danger remains very real, It hasn't gone away, and we can't afford to lose any more time," IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said.